I’ve fought my weight ever since I turned 18, when my metabolism decided to stop working its magic.
Growing up, I was a pretty skinny girl who could eat for four people – a blessing I never realized was one, until I hit my body’s “fun’s over” date.
My first year of university in London was like what most people would expect – a bit too much indulgence in food and drink. I gained 11 kg in that year alone, and became almost unrecognizable to people back home. A failed attempt at the Atkins Diet made me feel even more helpless, and it was only when I stuck to a strict food regimen — and cut out the fun juice — for 10 months in my second year that I lost 9 kg.
But that was never going to be living a full life for me and I couldn’t put my love of food in the backseat. My mother used to tell me that I got my love for dressing up in nice clothes from her and my love of food from my father. For the following decade these competing desires battled each other, causing my weight to drastically fluctuate. It was only when I was introduced to the 5:2 diet three years ago that my life completely changed.
This diet involves intermittent fasting — eating normally five days a week and dieting on two non-consecutive days.
That’s when I cut my calorie intake to a quarter of my normal level – or 500 calories (600 for a man) – although I can drink all the tea, coffee and water I like.
On other days, I can eat up to 2,000 calories (for men it’s 2,400). Nevertheless, I realized I was fine during normal days on just 1,500 calories – with no exercise and off the diet during my holidays – and managed to lose 10 kg in a year and a half.
Ultimately, this way of eating made sense to me, as our ancestors did not have three ready-made meals and snacks every day, but had to fast while hunting for their food.
Although slightly tough at first, it very soon became a breeze. And weight loss is not the only benefit. Studies of intermittent fasting show that, not only do people experience improvements in blood pressure and cholesterol levels, but also insulin sensitivity. On my “fasting” days, I instantly became more productive, was able to think and see things clearer, and felt much more energized.
It all boils down to how the body processes food: either using glucose or fat as its main source of energy. When we eat, our insulin level rises, enabling cells to take in glucose from the bloodstream and convert it to energy.
“Additional glucose is stored in the liver as glycogen and, when there is no longer space to store glycogen, the liver turns glycogen into fat,” explains Dr Sashini Perera, Family Medicine Specialist at Emirates Hospital Day Surgery and Medical Center. “The fat is stored in the liver [as well as] deposited around the body. During fasting, insulin levels lower and the body converts glycogen back into glucose to use for energy.”
Once this is used up, the body uses the fat stores for energy. Periods of fasting are thought to lower the level of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). This is a good thing, as high levels of IGF-1 accelerate the aging process and increase the likelihood of cancer and type 2 diabetes. Low levels of IGF-1 have the opposite effect.
“Regular fasting can also increase insulin sensitivity and enhance growth hormone secretion, which helps in the maintenance of muscle and bone tissue mass,” Dr Perera says. “Noradrenaline levels increase during fasting, raising the basal metabolic rate. When you fast, the body initiates a mechanism called autophagy, during which dysfunctional proteins are broken down; this may protect you against cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.”
Studies in rats have shown that intermittent fasting may also increase the growth of new nerve cells, which are beneficial to brain function. Intermittent fasting also increases the levels of a hormone called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), of which a deficiency has been implicated in depression.
So even when I did reach my target weight – and even surpassed it – I continued the 5:2 to retain those health benefits.
“If you don’t eat [for more] than 14 hours, the body produces Sirtuins,” says Dr Alex Witasek, president of the International Society of Mayr Physicians. “Sirtuins is a substance that switches off the aging genes, which accelerate cell division.”
Intermittent fasting has become a growing trend in the region, with people becoming increasingly health-conscious.
“It is easy to adopt,” explains Azza Al Jneibi, a nutritionist at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi. “Also, in this region, many people are already used to a form of intermittent fasting during Ramadan. It can work as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle. So, if done properly, without overeating, and by consuming a healthy, balanced diet, including all food groups, many people may find success with intermittent fasting.”
However, Al Jneibi warns that medical advice should be sought before intermittent fasting for those with a history of eating disorder, Type 1 or 2 diabetes, who are underweight, malnourished or have nutritional deficiencies, are pregnant or breastfeeding, have fertility problems, wish to become pregnant, or a history of amenorrhea.
She recommends the best types of intermittent fasting as follows:
- Fasting for 12 to 16 hours for two to three days a week, evenly distributed across the week.
- Restricting intake of food to 500 calories for women and 600 for men for two non-consecutive days a week and eating normally the remaining five days.
- Fasting for 16 hours and eating all the calories within eight hours.
Ultimately, the 5:2 teaches you to become calorie-smart (thank you, MyFitnessPal), make small tweaks in your diet that go a long way, all the while avoiding cravings thanks to the five remaining days in the week. And with time, you will start to notice your stomach shrinking, with smaller portions making you just as full as when you ate more.
My two cents worth of advice would be to carefully listen to your body. I have now re-introduced light exercise in my life and can say, in full confidence, that the 5:2 has truly re-established a much-needed healthy relationship between me and food.
Featured photo Caline Malek.